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‘It is unbelievable’: Francis Kéré becomes first black architect to win the Pritzker prize

Francis Kéré outside his Serpentine pavilion in Hyde Park, London, in 2017.
Francis Kéré outside his Serpentine pavilion in Hyde Park, London, in 2017. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Few architects have experienced such a meteoric rise, against such odds, as Francis Kéré. Born in a remote village in Burkina Faso without running water or electricity, he began his career by building a mud-brick school for his community, before being selected to design the country’s national parliament less than 15 years later. Now he continues his unparalleled trajectory, named as the winner of the 2022 Pritzker prize, architecture’s highest international accolade.

“It is unbelievable,” said Kéré, speaking from his office in Berlin. “I don’t know how this all happened. First of all I am happy and overwhelmed, but the prize also brings a great sense of responsibility. My life is not going to be easier.”

He is the first black architect to be recognised in the prestigious award’s 43-year history, reflecting the profession’s overwhelmingly white, male, middle-class bias – a product of systemic discrimination that still plagues the industry.

“I don’t want to talk about racism directly,” he said, “but this is a field where you need a lot of resources. You really need to be strong and be lucky, as competitions are not always so open. I hope that young people in Africa will see me and know that this is a possible path for them too.”

Kéré’s primary school in Gando, Burkina Faso.
Kéré’s primary school in Gando, Burkina Faso. Photograph: Erik-Jan Ouwerkerk

Kéré has made a name for himself with a series of schools and medical facilities in Africa that appear grown out of their context, built by local communities with the bare minimum of resources. Often featuring walls of clay-earth bricks, shaded by large, overhanging corrugated metal roofs, his buildings are elegantly tuned to their arid climate – whether in Mali, Togo, Kenya, Mozambique or Sudan – using natural cooling to avoid the need for air conditioning.

“Francis Kéré’s entire body of work shows us the power of materiality rooted in place,” said the Pritzker jury, chaired this year by Chilean activist-architect Alejandro Aravena. “His buildings, for and with communities, are directly of those communities – in their making, their materials, their programmes and their unique characters. They have presence without pretence and an impact shaped by grace.”

Born in Gando in 1965, Kéré was the oldest son of the village chief – a privileged status that is still marked on his face in the form of radial tribal scars representing the sun’s rays. He was the first in his community to attend school, sent away at the age of seven, after which he won a scholarship to study woodwork in Germany. He saw slim prospects for a career in carpentry in a country that had little wood, so he switched to study architecture at the Technical University of Berlin. For his final project he designed a primary school for his home village – and set about fundraising and mobilising friends and family to see it built. It was realised in 2001, for about £20,000.

“I knew I had a duty to my people,” he said. “I wanted to do everything I could to find an adequate technique for building a school, with climate conditions to give basic comfort for true teaching, learning and excitement.” He was motivated by his own experience of school, trapped in a cement-block classroom for hours on end with poor ventilation and little daylight.

Part of Kéré’s work on the redevelopment of the national park in Bamako, Mali.
Part of Kéré’s work on the redevelopment of the national park in Bamako, Mali. Photograph: Francis Kéré

Kéré’s Gando primary school set out the basic principles that would go on to define his work, using earth bricks made on site, topped with a perforated ceiling crowned by a thin “flying roof”. While the corrugated metal roofs of many Burkinabe village houses make them intolerably hot inside, Kéré suspended his metal canopy above the classrooms to encourage stack ventilation, drawing cool air in through the building’s side windows and releasing hot air through the holes in the ceiling. The whole village was involved in construction: children gathered stones for the foundations while women brought water for the brick production, beginning a collaborative model of practice that he has continued ever since. The school won an Aga Khan award in 2004, catapulting Kéré to international fame and prompting him to found his practice in Berlin the following year.

“One invitation came after another,” he said. “Not for buildings but for paid conferences, which helped me subsidise the work and continue fundraising for more projects back home.” He expanded the Gando school with teachers’ housing, arranged in a curved courtyard reminiscent of a traditional village compound, followed by an extension to the school in 2008, and a library in 2015 featuring light-wells made by sawn clay pots cast into the ceiling. International commissions including the Serpentine pavilion in 2017, and an installation for the Coachella music festival in 2019, have continued to help him raise funds and awareness of his work in Africa.

The Aga Khan connection led to projects in Mali, including redevelopment of the national park in the capital, Bamako, and a centre for earth architecture in Mopti, both completed in 2010 to mark 50 years of independence. Back in Burkina Faso, Kéré began to experiment with different materials. For a secondary school in Koudougou in 2016 he used local laterite stone, to absorb the heat in daytime and radiate it back out at night, paired with a second facade of eucalyptus wood to create shaded spaces between the classrooms where students could gather between lessons. His design for the first phase of the Burkina Institute of Technology in 2020, also in Koudougou, saw cooling clay walls cast in-situ to speed up the building process, along with louvered classroom walls for better ventilation and eucalyptus used to line the expressive zigzag metal roof.

Kéré continues to experiment with natural alternatives to air conditioning, most recently for a technology campus in Kenya, completed last year, which features wind towers inspired by the forms of nearby termite mounds. “I am constantly looking,” he said. “I am not limiting myself with a formal language.”

Kéré’s planned national assembly building in Benin.
Kéré’s planned national assembly building in Benin. Photograph: Kéré Architecture Render

Unusually for a recipient of the Pritzker prize, which is often considered a lifetime achievement award, Kéré’s most ambitious buildings are still to come. Current projects include the new Goethe Institute in Senegal, a museum in Rwanda and a towering civic centre for the university campus in Munich, where he holds a professorship. His biggest project so far, for the national assembly of Benin, is currently under construction, rising out of the ground in the capital, Porto-Novo, in the form of a majestic palaver tree. “The site is next to a botanic garden,” he said, “so we proposed to extend the garden and place the biggest tree in the centre, with a debate hall beneath the figurative tree canopy – reflecting how democracy has always been conducted in west Africa.”

His equivalent project back home, for the national assembly of Burkina Faso in Ouagadougou, is now hanging in the balance, after the president was removed by a military coup in January. Kéré was commissioned in 2015, following a national uprising when the parliament was torched and the then-president hounded out of the country. He conceived the new building as a sloping ziggurat, covered with planted terraces, where people would be able to sit and enjoy elevated views across the city – symbolically climbing above the politicians.

“I want the people to take ownership over the parliament building,” he said, “so that, one day, when the next revolution comes, they will protect it as their own.”